Pumpkin, pumpkin, on the ground. How’d you get so big and round?
As part of McDonogh School’s Seed to Table program, incoming kindergarten students visit the school’s Roots Farm with their families a few months before school starts and begin a culinary adventure. In previous years, this has been an opportunity for children to meet their new classmates and, along with their families, plant over 1,000 sugar pumpkin seeds. This year, due to COVID, families visited the farm individually. While this may have presented logistical challenges, it also gave the kindergarten teachers and staff at Roots an opportunity to really engage with the incoming students one-on-one. They discussed how a pumpkin grows and gave each family an individual tour of the on-campus farm before heading out to the fields and planting seeds.
Sugar pumpkins have become a signature crop at Roots, which has grown from a small garden to a 10-acre outdoor classroom and fully operational farm over the last 13 years. Students from PreK to twelfth grade plant, maintain, and harvest the crops. They pick apples from the orchard and make fresh-pressed apple cider, extract honey from the school’s four beehives, make jam from freshly-picked peaches, and much more!
“It doesn’t get more farm-to-fork than this,” said Sharon Hood, affectionately known as Farmer Hood around campus. “Students are able to go out into the fields and harvest with me, bring their produce and herbs into the barn, and cook something right then and there. It helps them build an immediate connection between farming and food.”
Before becoming a full-time farmer-educator at the school, Farmer Hood taught kindergarten at McDonogh. You could say that helping children understand where their food comes from is a passion for her; and as a former kindergarten teacher, the annual pumpkin project is one of her favorites.
But children can’t appreciate the farm-to-fork connection if their experience ends at harvesting crops. Which is why the Seed to Table program purposely involves the culinary arts.
Chef Mallory Staley joined the Roots Farm team this past year and is working with Farmer Hood to help teachers build culinary connections across the curriculum. Recently, a sixth grade Spanish class visited the farm to make Paella. And the eighth grade Farm to Fork class discovered that 95% of a pumpkin is edible. Not only did they puree the flesh, but they made chips out of the skin and stuffed the edible blossoms with ricotta cheese. Next month, PreK students will visit the farm to make gingerbread houses and learn pastry decorating techniques.
Farmer Hood and Chef Staley don’t just want to help students understand the farm-to-fork connection; they also want students to understand the farm-to-community connection. Roots Farm is an official Farm-to-Food Bank Network Partner for the Maryland Food Bank. The Farm specifically produces squash to donate to the Food Bank, along with other crops. This year alone they have donated more than 8,000 pounds of produce to the Food Bank. All of the produce was harvested by students.
This week, kindergartners will return to the farm and head into the barn to make vegan, dairy-free muffins with the pumpkins they planted and harvested. Because of COVID, each little learner will have their own individual culinary space. Guided by Chef Staley, they will clean their pumpkins, remove the seeds, make pumpkin puree, and then measure ingredients to make two muffins: one to eat at the end of class and one to take home and share with their family.
“It’s definitely a constant dance,” said Chef Staley with a laugh, describing muffin-making with a dozen or so five and six-year-olds. “But it’s so important that they see the process. Many of these children have only ever seen pumpkin puree in a can. Now they won’t ever take it for granted.”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our School Spotlight Series. In this series, we spotlight our partner schools to give you a glimpse into what learning looks like on their campus. To learn more about McDonogh School, visit their directory listing in our Independent School Directory. Images were provided by the school. Want to become a school partner? Email us.